FORT MYERS, Fla. — Chaim Bloom didn’t want to sugarcoat what he’d done.
The trade that sent Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers, along with a commitment to pay $48 million of the remaining $96 million owed to Price the next three years, in exchange for outfielder Alex Verdugo and a pair of prospects — middle infielder Jeter Downs and catcher Connor Wong — became official around 7:15 p.m. on Monday night. Minutes after that, the Red Sox chief baseball officer took stock of the deal and the motivation to complete it.
In Betts, Bloom said, the Sox gave up one of the best players and people ever to wear a Red Sox uniform. Price, meanwhile, was a central contributor to a championship in 2018. Their absence has obvious implications for 2020.
“I certainly think it’s reasonable to expect that we’re going to be worse without them,” said Bloom.
So why do it? Why sacrifice the team’s best player and one of its established starters — a veteran lefthander who, despite growing durability questions, has proven he can be a rotation anchor when healthy?
The answer, Bloom said, was a need to emphasize the long-term, both by adding young talent to the organization and by improving the team’s financial flexibility — and thus creating more spending options — moving forward.
In recent years, the talent base in the upper levels of the minor leagues — the players who can impact the roster for several years, many with low salaries that permit additional spending on veterans — has thinned due to trades and prospects graduating to the big leagues. With Betts under team control for just one additional year before reaching free agency, the team saw an opportunity to infuse young talent into the big league roster (Verdugo) and upper levels of the system (Downs and Wong, both of whom will be in big-league camp).
“This trade is a very hard one to make. But our mission, our charge as a department, is to compete consistently year-in and year-out, and to put ourselves in position to win as many championships as we can. That’s behind everything we do,” said Bloom. “We can only accomplish that goal with a talent base at all levels of the organization that is deep, broad, and sustainable. Acquiring Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs, and Connor Wong represents a major step forward for our talent base and will help us win consistently for many years.”
Meanwhile, dealing Betts and Price sheds $42 million (for luxury tax purposes) in 2020, allowing the team to get its payroll below the $208 million luxury tax threshold for the coming year.
The Sox led the majors in spending in both 2018 and 2019, with increasing luxury tax penalties as a result. By getting below the threshold in 2020, the team will significantly lower the penalties associated with spending past it in future years, in turn allowing it to channel more of future annual budgets into player salaries and less into taxes.
That reset of the luxury tax penalties, along with tens of millions of dollars in revenue-sharing rebates that would have been eliminated without getting below the luxury tax threshold every few years, will give the team more options and flexibility to spend moving forward.
But what of 2020? Bloom shook off the notion that the team was sacrificing the coming year.
“We fully expect to compete in 2020,” said Bloom. “The frontline talent on our major league roster can play with anybody, and we’ve worked all winter to improve our depth so that we can weather the ups and downs of the season.”
Bloom noted prior examples of extreme season-to-season divergences from projections. In 2013, the Sox were considered unlikely to contend after they dealt three key roster members (Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford) the prior August. That team won a championship. Likewise, the back-to-back years of 108 victories in 2018 and 84 in 2019 with a virtually unaltered roster highlighted how seasons follow unexpected arcs.
The Sox possess more talent, Bloom suggested, than last year’s third-place finish. And if the roster coalesces in certain ways, then despite the departures of Betts and Price, the Sox feel the playoffs remain within reach in the coming year.
But that optimistic outlook is far from a guarantee. To the contrary, the deal was driven by the willingness to look beyond the immediate season and operate from a long-term perspective.
“Ultimately,” said Sox GM Brian O’Halloran, “we have to make the best decisions for the Red Sox to compete both in 2020 and the years beyond, the next five to 10 years. We need to put ourselves in the best position to sustain success.”
The Sox believe they’ve done that, but the process to get to that point wasn’t smooth or direct. For much of the offseason, Bloom said, the Sox expected to keep Betts in 2020, and the team didn’t actively shop him to other clubs. But later in the offseason, teams approached the Sox with improved offers — the sort that convinced the team that some short-term pain would be worth the improved long-term outlook.
Yet even once the Sox committed to going down the road of trading Betts as well as Price to the Dodgers, the late stages of the deal proved rocky. The Sox initially agreed last Tuesday to a three-team deal with the Dodgers and Twins that would have brought Verdugo and righthander Brusdar Graterol to Boston, with Los Angeles sending starter Kenta Maeda to Minnesota.
That deal fell apart after the Sox reviewed Graterol’s medical file and deemed him less likely than expected to have a long-term future as a starter. The Sox and Twins tried unsuccessfully to adjust the deal with an additional prospect.
Bloom didn’t go into specifics, but expressed some regret about the disruption to negotiations, which left the trade and several players in limbo from Tuesday until a revised agreement for two separate deals — between the Sox and Dodgers, as well as the Dodgers and Twins — was reached on Sunday.
“What was unique about this one was how publicly it played out,” said Bloom. “Mostly, we just felt bad for the teams involved, and especially for the players involved.”
Bloom took issue with suggestions that the initial three-team trade unraveled as a result of Red Sox ownership getting cold feet in response to an avalanche of negative public reactions to the initial deal.
“Absolutely untrue,” said Bloom. “We had to prioritize what was right in the big picture for the Red Sox over the fan reaction. It certainly did not catch us off guard. . . . Obviously we know the type of player Mookie is, we know how much he matters to our fans. We knew it would hurt, and it’s going to hurt for a little while, but again, the big picture was our biggest priority.”
To the Sox, the big-picture view ultimately required the sacrifice of two players indelibly linked with the franchise’s most recent championship — a gamble as bold and ambitious as it was painful.